Warning: this post contains spoilers for Conn Iggulden’s Stormbird, book one in his Wars of the Roses series
What is the modern fantasy genre may arguably be said to have been derived from historical fiction. After all, much of classical fantasy was derived from the myths and legends of times gone by, and for a long time (arguably to this day), fantasy was significantly stuck in twelfth century Europe. The genre has since expanded far beyond those historical beginnings, with subgenres like alternative world fantasy that are set in completely different universes, with their own laws of physics, and with characters that sometimes aren’t human at all. However, given that heritage, it perhaps should not be terribly surprising that a historical fiction novel about the Wars of the Roses would read more like fantasy than anything else.
That made for easy reading, and it has long been one of Conn Iggulden’s strengths as an author, in my opinion. I was introduced to his work by my dad, as I was to so many of my favorite authors, with his Caesar series, which were very good, although it was his series on the Mongols that to my mind stood out from the rest; there are so few sympathetic depictions of Genghis Kahn and the Mongol conquest that it was really a fascinating depiction. He also wrote a standalone novel about a band of Greek mercenaries making their way back from a disastrous civil war in Persia, which I realized as I was reading it was actually based on the first-hand account of Xenophon, which I had already read from his collected works. One of my more interesting reading experiences was having read the primary source material before reading the historical fiction adaptation.
The oft-cited critique of Iggulden’s work is that he can sometimes play fast and loose with the historical part of the enterprise. Much of his character development (usually by necessity) is driven by inference and supposition, leading some of the characters to sometimes seem more a product of our time than of theirs. Details biographies these are not. Even dates and other figures will sometimes be fudged to help the story along, with particularly interesting side characters getting a few extra years of life so that they can be part of key scenes, and events getting compressed to avoid having to write about three years in which absolutely nothing happened. I understand these critiques, but I do not necessarily agree with them.
There is a reason historical fiction is called what is it: it’s supposed to be fiction, meaning not real. While I think historical fiction is a fantastic way to get an insight into the contexts of different times periods, to really get in-depth exposure to the world of the time, it’s really not intended to be a rigorous retelling of events in the historical record. Especially with ancient history, there simply isn’t enough material off of which to base such a work, and besides, it would not be nearly as compelling from a story-telling perspective. While historical fiction can be used to inform, that is not its primary intent. Although this varies from author to author, my experience with the genre has been that most authors more or less are there first to tell a compelling story, and were inspired by historical events.
Sometimes, there are more changes required than in other instances, but Conn Iggulden has always been careful about noting the major changes and assumptions that he makes in the back of his books. These are not carefully laid-out references and explanations; it’s just a couple of pages where he details, in colloquial language, where he made changes, and why he made them. To me, that’s enough for what his books are intended to do; if I want rigorous inspections of the history in question, I’ll find a history book, a biography, or better yet, a primary source.
Especially coming off of the spate of nonfiction that I’ve been reading recently, this was a refreshing return to something a little closer to fantasy, and I thoroughly enjoyed it for both its historical and its fictional merit. I’ll be reading the second book in the series next, although I’m not sure if I’ll follow that immediately with the third. Either way, expect the whole series to eventually be reviewed here on the site. In the meantime, I would definitely recommend that you check out Stormbird.